Bringing Life to Learning

A popular art exhibition aimed at connecting children and their caregivers with the natural world has returned to Tacony Creek Park in Philadelphia. The River Alive! Learning Trail, first installed in September 2022, teaches English- and Spanish-speaking families the importance of healthy watersheds through play, fun facts, and music.

The 4,000-square-foot exhibition is an extension of the River Alive! Exhibit at Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. That exhibit focuses on the Delaware Watershed as a way of showing how people and the environment are connected and what kids can do to be a “river hero.”

Victoria Prizzia, creative director of Habithèque and the artist behind the museum exhibition, took that idea and created it on a neighborhood scale, in partnership with the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, Inc. (TTF). (Prizzia also created the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center’s POOL exhibition, which won the Special Places Award during the 52nd Environmental Partnership Awards Dinner last year.) For the learning trail, a public park offered more freedom to design features and for visitors to interact with them.

“It’s not limited by the walls of a museum,” explained Doryán De Angel, community watershed leader for TTF.

The learning trail consists of six animal sculptures, designed by the Philadelphia visual artist Miguel Horn, each with a nearby sitting bench and bilingual signs geared toward early learning.

One set of signs contains short poems or stories about, say, a redbreast sunfish:

I swish my fins
as I glide about.
I’m an excellent swimmer,
there is no doubt.
I breathe through gills in
waters cloudy or clear.
As a daddy, I build nests
to keep my babies near.

All but one of the six animals — the sunfish, a fox, a turtle, a heron, a water snake, and a river otter — can be seen around the park. Otters used to inhabit the area, De Angel explained, but water quality issues have driven them away.

Families help to create a mosaic around the base of a turtle sculpture, one of six such installations in the River Alive! Learning Trail in Juniata Park, Philadelphia.

Another set of signs teaches kids about watersheds with fun facts, often phrased as reflective questions. An example: “Did you know that the water you drink is the same water the dinosaurs drank?”

Such a question is meant to inspire a sense of wonder in and engagement with the natural world that De Angel said is key to inspiring the next generation of environmental stewards.

“The message with that is how can we improve our water spaces and water quality so that one day otters do come back,” she said. “You have the opportunity to see these animals if you look closely and we take care of their habitat.”

A QR code links to songs about the animals, composed by local band and education group City Love. When you listen to them all, they form a watershed song.

Other features of the learning trail include rain poetry (messages that only appear when wet) and two crosswalk murals. These activities aren’t just for kids.

A child interacts with one of the six animal statues that make up the River Alive! Learning Trail.

Habithèque’s description of the project puts it this way:  “This initiative views children as natural curious explorers of the world, and their caregivers as their vital ‘first-teachers.’ As a result, the activity prompts are designed to encourage caregivers to participate along with their children, deepening play and learning through intergenerational communication.”

Families love the Learning Trail. Before finishing the project last year, TTF hosted three community art sessions, during which families had the chance to create mosaics around the base of the animal sculptures. More than 100 people joined the effort.

“We’ve heard a lot of positive feedback: kids love playing with the sculptures

River Alive! Learning Trail is a pilot project that organizers hope can serve as a template for other urban public spaces.

“We would love to see these different educational components at other parts of the park system,” De Angel said, as well as signage in more languages spoken by residents, such as Vietnamese and Arabic.

TTF has some free and fun, kid-centered events in the coming months. Story time happens at the Learning Trail every Friday starting at 10 a.m. Weekly artist workshops, in which teachers will have classes with themes related to one of the animal sculptures, began July 21 and will happen again on July 28, Aug. 7, and Aug. 11.

TTF also hosts weekly cleanups in different areas of the park. These are open to the public and happen on Wednesdays from 3-5 p.m.

Finally, TTF offers free monthly field trips to the Independence Seaport Museum from 1:30pm-4:30pm on the following Sundays: August 13, September 24, October 22, and December 17. Learn more & register here.